Thursday, July 26, 2007
Before you try to reinvent a place, you should be able to equal it.
IT'S the Sixties all over again: architects, politicians and machers are promoting urban-removal mega-projects — and the people are fighting back. In the early Sixties, Jane Jacobs fought Robert Moses and helped stop a highway through the middle of Washington Square and Greenwich Village. A year or so later, Jane Jacobs, Philip Johnson and Jackie Onassis fought against the demolition of McKim, Mead & White's Pennsylvania Station, but lost, and the city suffered.
”You used to enter the city like a god, now you creep in like a rat,” Vincent Scully famously said about the new and old stations. It's funny that the buildings architects propose today even look like those 1960s buildings (before the Beatles and the Summer of Love). All Power to the People, baby.
The "villages" proposed by New York City's Deputy Mayor in their Olympic proposal are obvious examples of what I'm talking about. The Deputy Mayor even considers himself a new Robert Moses (and says Jane Jacobs was wrong). Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards is another, although Frank Gehry's architecture doesn't look neo-Sixties. But the examples aren't limited to New York, by any means — I got an e-mail today about a project in New Orleans that I briefly wrote about earlier:
The latest news is that Mayor Nagin, often criticized for moving too slowly and doing too little, has listened to the architects who say that what New Orleans needs in its year of crisis is more avant garde architecture. Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and other celebrities are being brought in to "reinvent the Crescent" and help make New Orleans safe for developers who want to build big glass boxes. The myth of the Howard-Roark-style architectural hero lives on, despite five decades of ego-driven invention making our cities worse places to live.
Will Starchitects be the salvation of New Orleans? Or are Modern architects squabbling about style instead of rebuilding the city?
Here's the e-mail.
PLEASE FORWARD THIS E-MAIL TO YOUR FRIENDS WHO LOVE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS…
Dear Members and Friends:
There is a very important public presentation this Saturday, about the future of New Orleans' Riverfront. Some changes will be improvements for the riverfront, for sure. We hope those will be implemented. But, some proposed changes have us very concerned. That's why, in an unprecedented move, neighborhood leaders of the Marigny, Bywater and French Quarter formed RiverfrontAlliance.org and have been meeting weekly – an aggressive meeting schedule – but we think the issue of the riverfront will likely become a very big controversy.
The city's process, known as "Reinventing the Crescent", has been going on for about 6 months, headed by Sean Cummings, a local developer and head of the city's New Orleans Building Corporation, and a local architectural team, Eskew, Dumez and Ripple – but, it also involved some famous out-of-town planners and architects. Over the past months, the plans have been evolving, and revealed to the public periodically, with the last update in May. This Saturday is the final plan, except for some aspects related to the funding.
What will it reveal? We don't know. None of the neighborhood organizations from Jackson Avenue to the Industrial Canal were invited to be on the steering committee.
One likely controversial part: We suspect, based on presentations, that the plan will include a proposal for high-rises and medium-rises in the historic Bywater neighborhood, where the Mississippi River meets the Industrial Canal, where the current military base is to eventually be decommissioned. We have seen drawings with as many as six towers in this one spot – appearing like "Land of the Giants" alongside the historic Bywater neighborhood.
While we have had opportunities in this process to listen to presentations, ask questions or make comments, this is not a plan from the people, like the UNOP plan was. It is not built upon citizens coming together to say what they want. This plan appears to be what certain hired professionals say we should want.
I'd like to now take you back in time – About five years ago, there was another, earlier riverfront planning process here in New Orleans. Participants were told that the riverfront could be "economic development" for New Orleans. Some of us wondered how the parks and bike paths being discussed, while nice, were going to add all that much to the economy. Ah, but, there was more to it…
Most of the neighborhood leaders were surprised when a plan was revealed to build high-rises and medium-rises at the River, much like you might see along the Florida coast. Towers, we were told, would be economic development. The public never said they wanted this! This idea appeared to be a developer-driven proposal!
Then, Katrina came. Now, we're being told that, post Katrina, the way for us to have a renaissance for New Orleans is to have high-rises and medium-rises at the River! Coincidence? Well, now we don't have to take our local developers word for it – the hired famous out-of -town planners and architects say so!
But, to be clear, not all architects or planners feel this way: During our UNOP downtown planning, when told of a possible plan to build high-rises along the river, an equally famous architect/planner made an eloquent and thought-provoking presentation about how the intimacy of our small scale historic neighborhoods give New Orleans so much character…and how the downriver neighborhoods are amazing to be so intact – this close to the city's downtown. This planner praised this as an asset that the city should treasure and market to attract new residents and visitors – comparing our neighborhoods character and scale to great cities in Europe! It was inspiring to see this fresh through his eyes.
In the darkest days shortly after Katrina, I will never forget meeting in private homes with some of this city's best and brightest neighborhood leaders. We discussed, then, how some day the city was going to seriously consider throwing out the rules and protections for our historic neighborhoods, either out of desperation or because somebody wanted to make $$$ at the expense of the rest of us, with the hurricane being a great excuse.
Is that day here? I hope not. I trust that you'll agree that this city is too amazing, too special, to let that happen. Please join us Saturday to see what they have in mind. See below for more details.
A member of the multi-neighborhood coalition, RiverfrontAlliance.org
P.S. If you haven't signed the petition yet at www.RiverfrontAlliance.org , please do so now. It asks for neighborhood sensitivity and input! We need your support.
The City Riverfront Plan Unveiled
REINVENTING THE CRESCENT
This Saturday, 9 to 11 a.m.
Please join us for the final public presentation regarding the strategic development plan for the New Orleans Riverfront between Jackson Avenue and the Holy Cross neighborhood. Launched in February by the New Orleans Building Corporation and the Port of New Orleans, this important initiative is led by a team of internationally recognized riverfront planners and architects, who will present their master plan at this meeting.
This Saturday, July 28
9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Port Authority Auditorium
(Riverside of floodwall at Henderson Street)
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
UPDATE: I was recently in Lenox, Mass, and wanted to use my iPhone and the WiFi at The Bookstore to show the store's owner that I had put his store on my blog. But I discovered that I had somehow left it off the list. That error is hereby corrected.
A GOOD BOOKSTORE is a great thing. It's a center of civilzation and a community center, one of the prime examples of Ray Oldenburg's Third Good Places.
A bookstore's an indication of local culture. When I was at Harvard, there were three all-night bookstores within a stone's throw of Harvard Square. You slept better knowing they were there.
The internet and the big chains have been a mixed blessing for book lovers. On the one hand, you can get any book quickly and buy books for less, and who doesn't like that? (Answer, authors, because they get less per book — on the other hand, maybe they'll sell more books.)
Strikingly, hundreds of places in the US that had a mediocre bookstore or no bookstore at all now have chain stores with 100,000 titles that are open from 9 am to 11 pm. The mega-stores even let you sit and read in comfortable chairs, with WiFi and perhaps a cup of coffee. The best Barnes & Noble I know of is in a four-story loft-building on Union Square in Manhattan, with hundreds of thousands of books, hundreds of magazines and a large cafe. Many people use the store like a library, reading books and magazines for hours that they have no intention of buying.
But obviously most of these mega-stores have no in-house expertise and about as much soul as Starbucks. And they put better bookstores out of business.
Here in Coral Gables, I can walk to a great bookstore, Books & Books. Just a few minutes away, they have lots of books, knowledgeable staff, a good cafe and lots and lots of speakers and books signings. So that got me thinking about bookstores I've known and loved:
Baldwin's Book Barn, West Chester, Pa
Book Soup, Los Angeles
Books & Books, Coral Gables, Fla
The Bookstore, Lenox, Mass
Buchhandlung L. Werner, Munich
Collected Works, Santa Fe
Corner Bookstore, New York
Crawford & Doyle, New York
E Shaver Booksellers, Savannah
Garcia Street Books, Santa Fe
Gotham Book Mart, New York
Hans Golst Kunstbücher, Munich
Hennessey & Ingalls, Los Angeles
Housing Works Book Cafe, New York
La Hune, Paris
Librairie du Moniteur, Paris
Librarie Galignani, Paris
Maple Street Bookshop, New Orleans
Montague Book Mill, Montague, Mass
New Canaan Bookshop, (RIP) New Canaan, Conn
New Dominion, Charlottesville
Politics & Prose, Washington
Prairie Avenue Bookshop, Chicago
Rizzoli, New York
Scribner's, (RIP), New York Shakespeare & Company, Paris Spring Street Books, (RIP) New York
Sundog Books, Seaside
Square Books, Oxford, Miss
The Strand, New York
Taylor Books, Charleston WV
Tattered Cover, Denver
Waterstone's, London (Picadilly)
Weyhe, (RIP), New York
William Stout, San Francisco
In the post Barnes & Noble / Border's / Amazon era, Blackwell's has gone global and lost some of their charm. But I still have fond memories of when the Dollar Was King and I could order books from Blackwell's that would come over on their weekly plane to New York and still cost half what they sold for here. Foyles, which before the internet was the largest bookstore in the world, has also lost a lot of their old, peculiar (they shelve by publisher rather than subject) charm.
Waterstone's is a large British chain that sold the management of its internet business to amazon.co.uk, but it has an excellent bookstore in an old Art Deco department store on Picadilly (the largest bookshop in Europe). A cafe and bar on the top floor has great views. Down the street is Hatchards, the royal bookseller. Somehow they're never quite as good as I imagine they should be.
Recommended By Others (I haven't been to these):
Antigone Books, Tuscon
Beckham's Books, New Orleans*
Boulder Book Store, Boulder
Chaucer's Bookstore, Santa Barbara
City Lights, San Francisco**
Dutton's, Los Angeles (Brentwood)
Jackson Street Books, Athens, Ga
Joseph Fox, Philadelphia
Kepler's Books and Magazines, Menlo Park
Lemuria, Jackson, Miss
Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville
Northshire, Manchester, VT**
Powell's Books, Portland
Prairie Lights, Dubuque
Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh
The Regulator, Durham
Sam Weller's Zion Books, Salt Lake City
Seminary Co-op, Chicago
Village Voice Bookstore, Paris**
Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena
* I didn't list any of the used book stores in New Orleans, because there are many good ones, and I couldn't remember the names.
** Actually, I have been to these three, but can't really remember them.
Monday, July 23, 2007
The Potter Report: Movie 5 & Book 7
FIRST, the movie. The rule of thumb says that one page of screenplay equals one minute of movie. And a page in an average book has many more words than a typical screenplay. So the reviews that say the Harry Potter books miss many of the story lines in the books are right. And as the reviews also say, the story telling in the latest Potter movie is not great, but it's adequate (which makes it much better than the first movie in the series, directed by Home Alone's Chris Columbus).
But if Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had been made 10 or 15 years ago, we would have been astounded by the special effects. The movie goes by quickly, even if the darkness that prevails on screen gets tiresome, and most Potter fans will enjoy the show.
I am a Potter fan. I've bought several of the books on the first day, and finished them before the weekend was over. This time I waited until the following afternoon (Saturday), but I finished the book the next day and enjoyed the ride. Most of all, I enjoyed the ending, when I've thought a few of the books ran out of steam at the end. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a good finale for a good series.
Friday, July 20, 2007
As The World Turns: Snowless in Abondance
ABONDANCE, France: Muddy slopes, slushy peaks, unused lifts - this town in the French Alps is living out the nightmare of many a ski resort in a century scientists say is doomed to keep getting warmer.
The city council of Abondance - its name a cruel reminder of the generous snowfall it once enjoyed - voted last month 9-6 to shut down the ski station that has been its economic raison d'etre for more than 40 years. The reason: not enough snow.
Abondance is the French Alps' first ski station to fall apparent victim to global warming. It will almost certainly not be the last.
At 930 meters (3,051 feet), this station between Mont Blanc and Lake Leman falls in the altitude range climate scientists say has seen the most dramatic drop in snowfall in recent generations.
There's lots more news like this coming. Are we ready to adapt yet?
Another corrupt FEMA practice: This one poisons people
The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.
A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency's lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
...FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.
One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers "could seriously undermine the Agency's position" in litigation.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Dog Bites Man: Architecture Professor Wears Black, Criticizes New Urbanism, Designs Neo-50s Houses.
THE ARCHITECT of the Porchdog House (above) said, "Yes, Architecture for Humanity ... invited 15 architects to propose prototypes for Biloxi, the only Gulf Coast city that rejected the New Urbanist designs on their city--which I would applaud on a certain level."
When do we get over the style cliches? Shouldn't a group called Architecture for Humanity be fighting for good cities, town, neighborhoods and buildings rather than dogmatically Modernist architecture? [Update: The director of Architecture for Humanity has responded. The situation seems different than one might guess from the website. See the comments.]
Marianne Cusato's Katrina Cottage won the People's Choice Design Award. The Katrina Cottage, unlike the Porchdog House, is for temporary housing (replacing the much-more expensive FEMA trailers), but when Marianne is out on the frequently runs into architects who oppose her work, on ideological grounds: it does not express the architectonic concerns of Modernist architects. In other words, it's a style issue.
In contrast to that, Marianne's design is part of a holistic solution, New Urbanism, that addresses issues of community, sustainability and Global Warming. Houses like the Porchdog House are only about the individual house.
New Urbanism proposes mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods that reduce auto-dependency. Architecture for Humanity proposes house designs that don't critique the sprawling, energy wasting patterns of development on the Gulf Coast. [ditto]
The 20th century is over. We don't have to be Modern anymore! It's time that architects get over these style fetishes and join the real world. We need designs that are more socially and environmentally responsive.
The CNU's Gulf Coast charrette produced several Modern designs. Its focus was on the creation of good sustainable places, not the making of ideological architectural statements.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
La Fête de la Bastille
IN BROOKLYN, the Bar Tabac, Pernod Ricard and Petanque America close four blocks of Smith Street and cover the street with sand for a petanque tournament and Fête Nationale de la France. We'll be there. Why wasn't there something like this in London on the Fourth of July?
The Alliance Française is closing their street too. We'll start out there.
Taken July 15, 2007, with my iPhone: